Turkish frigate sails Asian waters with a message

By Dr. Altay Atlı

As this post goes online, a Turkish Navy frigate, TCG Gediz, is sailing from the port of Singapore towards the South China Sea. And no, it is not about Turkey meddling in what is already a highly complicated geopolitical situation in the said waters. TCG Gediz is on a mission to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Ottoman frigate Ertuğrul, which was wrecked off the coast of Japan while returning from a goodwill trip to this country in 1890. Ertuğrul’s story is remembered by generations of Turks and Japanese and forms part of the solid foundation in the bilateral relationship between the two countries. TCG Gediz is following the same route Ertuğrul had taken in order to honor the memory of both the Ottoman sailors who perished in the disaster and the Japanese people who did their utmost to save the survivors.

In addition to its commemorative purpose, TCG Gediz’s voyage carries a significant meaning in geostrategic sense as well. To start with, it aims to reinforce Turkey’s foreign policy efforts of cementing relations with both East and South Asian nations. The mission which began on April 1 at the port of Aksaz on Turkey’s southwest Mediterranean coast will have the frigate visiting 18 ports in 14 Asian countries within 122 days. As the ship’s commanding officer Yusuf Kocaman stated in the pre-departure press conference, the frigate will “make port calls in order to support Turkey’s foreign policy, to improve existing relations and to help establish new ones.” Commemorative activities will not be the only event In every Asian port where the frigate shows the Turkish flag. “Experience and knowledge” will also be shared in fields like training and weaponry.

But the frigate’s mission goes beyond Asia. As part of its duties, TCG Gediz joined NATO’s counter piracy operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden. It’s not the first time that the frigate is taking part in a NATO operation. However, combining NATO operations with port calls and cooperative activities in Asian ports gives TCG Gediz’s mission a symbolic significance of signaling Turkey’s objective of being a reliable NATO ally while at same time nurturing relations with the rising powers of Asia.

TCG Gediz’s geostrategic message, moreover, isn’t limited to projecting Turkish foreign policy objectives. The frigate also isn’t an ordinary Turkish Navy ship, it serves as a showcase of Turkey’s military modernization program. TCG Gediz is a product of the Turkish National Warship program, which aims to “meet the operational needs of the Turkish Navy by using national resources.” Through this program she was equipped with an advanced combat management system designed and developed by Turkish engineers at the Naval Research Center. The system, codenamed GENESIS, integrates naval hardware and software, providing the vessels in the program with sophisticated radar surveillance, target identification, data processing and air defense capabilities. Seen from this angle, TCG Gediz’s mission includes the task of demonstrating Turkey’s newly acquired military capabilities to both NATO allies and the emerging powers of the Indo-Pacific.

Turkey’s efforts to improve indigenous technological capabilities, especially in the military realm, also constitute a key variable defining the nature of Ankara’s foreign policy oscillations between the West and the East. Turkey’s earlier decision to open negotiations with a Chinese corporation for the purchase of long-range anti-missile systems illustrates an important point within this context. This step taken by Turkey was criticized by NATO allies on the grounds that the Chinese system wouldn’t be compatible with existing NATO systems. From Ankara’s point of view, however, the rationale behind the decision was that China was offering co-production and technology transfer, while the other bidders, all NATO allies, were refusing to do so. Turkey wants to improve its technological capabilities and while this objective requires investment in R&D, innovation, training etc., it also necessitates transferring the technology from those who already own it. In the Chinese missile case, Turkey realized that a strong and totally legitimate economic rationale doesn’t necessarily mean that such decisions won’t cause political reactions from other parties.

The Chinese missile system deal hasn’t been concluded yet. This shows that  the Turkish government is trying to find a balance, between economic and political concerns, as well as between its western allies  and the rising power of the East. TCG Gediz’s mission, on the other hand, illustrates Turkey’s overall vision: remaining a vital component of the western alliance, while at the same time making new friends in Asia, and increasing Turkey’s own power.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a research fellow at the Center of Global Studies at Shanghai University, and a non-resident scholar at the Asian Studies Center of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.

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